Shellfish Handling, Storing, and Cooking

Handling Shellfish

Keep shellfish chilled after harvesting or purchase. If the temperature of shellfish is allowed to rise, bacteria will grow and the shellfish will become unsafe to eat.

Storing Shellfish

Fresh Shellfish in the Shell

All fresh shellfish should be stored in an open container in the refrigerator. Place a damp towel on top to maintain humidity. Never store shellfish in water. They will die and may spoil. Shellfish that are open and don't close when tapped are dead. Throw them out. Storage times for shellfish vary:

  • Shellfish that close their shells completely can be stored for up to seven days. This includes oysters, littlenecks, butter clams, and cockles. Exception: Mussels can be stored for three to four days.
  • Shellfish that cannot completely close their shells can be stored for three to four days. This includes horse clams, softshell clams, geoducks, and razor clams.

Shucked Shellfish

Shellfish removed from their shells should keep in a refrigerator for up to three days. In a freezer, they should keep for up to three months.

Cooked Shellfish

Cooked shellfish should keep in the refrigerator for up to two days and in a freezer up to three months.

Thawed Shellfish

Shellfish taken from the freezer and thawed in a refrigerator should keep for up to two days. Once thawed, do not refreeze.

Cooking Shellfish

To ensure proper food safety, shellfish must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145°F for 15 seconds. Since it is often impractical to use a food thermometer to check the temperature of cooked shellfish, here are some tips and recommended ways to cook shellfish safely:

  • Shucked shellfish (clams, mussels and oysters without shells) become plump and opaque when cooked thoroughly and the edges of the oysters start to curl. The FDA suggests boiling shucked oysters for 3 minutes, frying them in oil at 375°F for 10 minutes, or baking them at 450°F for 10 minutes.
  • Clams, mussels and oysters in the shell will open when cooked. The FDA suggests steaming oysters for 4 to 9 minutes or boiling them for 3 to 5 minutes after they open.
  • Scallops turn milky white or opaque and firm. Depending on size, scallops take 3 to 4 minutes to cook thoroughly.
  • Boiled lobster turns bright red. Allow 5 to 6 minutes – start timing the lobster when the water comes back to a full boil.
  • Shrimp turn pink and firm. Depending on the size, it takes from 3 to 5 minutes to boil or steam 1 pound of medium size shrimp in the shell.

Summer Harvest Precautions

Vibrio Bacteria

When temperatures rise in the summertime, so do bacteria levels in shellfish – most notably Vibrio parahaemolyticus. The commercial shellfish industry is aware of this and follows strict refrigeration and handling requirements during warm summer months. Recreational harvesters also need to be aware of this risk when planning a summer trip to the shore. Here are a few tips you need to know:

  • Check for beach closures and advisories or call 1-800-562-5632 before you go harvesting.
  • Harvest as soon as possible after the tide goes out (at the beginning of the tide cycle instead of at the end).
  • Don't harvest oysters that have been exposed to direct sunlight for more than two hours.
  • Place oysters under refrigeration or on ice immediately after harvest.
  • Thoroughly cook your oysters: the internal temperature must reach 145°F for 15 seconds. Thorough cooking destroys vibrio bacteria (note: cooking doesn't destroy biotoxins, aka "red tide"). Barbequing oysters just until they open will not kill the bacteria. You may need to steam oysters for 4 to 9 minutes or boiling them for 3 to 5 minutes after they open to fully cook them.

More Resources

Shellfish Handling, Storing, and Cooking - Handout (PDF)

Shellfish Illness Prevention

Food Safety for You and Your Family